It’s an interesting sign of the times when a media watchdog decides to
train its spotlight on the people who make complaints, rather than
simply adjudicating on the programmes complained about.
But the Broadcasting Standards Council, which this week published its
first profile of the protesters who write in about rape scenes in
Cracker and ‘violence and mayhem’ (yes, really) in Emmerdale, thinks it
is creating a more accountable system of gauging sentiment.
It is certainly sending out a very clear signal that consumers cannot be
treated like irritants to be fobbed off, very much the attitude which
the broadcasters adopted until quite recently.
While the 1980s was characterised by pressure from the public to make
the media more accountable - the 1990s Citizens Charter approach is
ushering in the use of sophisticated measuring techniques.
The key thing to emerge from the BSC’s report is how little pressure is
really exerted by professional lobbying groups. Almost all complaints,
some 98 per cent, came from private individuals.
The great liberal fear when the council was set up in 1988 was that it
would be captured by censors, and become Mary Whitehouse’s poodle. In
fact only 18 complaints (some 0.8 per cent) came from the National
Viewers and Listeners Association, the same percentage as those who
categorised themselves as ‘animal lover’.
Nor are batty old maids much in evidence: women and men complain in
almost equal numbers. But the one key group which does have a sense of
moral guardianship are clergymen, who make up seven per cent of
complaints. Also, men are increasingly complaining about sexism; just as
they object to seeing beefcake Gladiator types in ads, so they also
object to slapstick ‘comic’ violence against men (kicks in painful
places). They say they are victims of a female takeover in broadcasting.
When the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which handles claims of
unfairness as well as invasion of privacy merges with the BSC the
balance in favour of the public may change a bit, since it bears the
brunt of complaints from public relations departments and lawyers. But
this will not alter the fact that the BSC survey raises questions about
its own efficiency. Those who complain are overwhelmingly concentrated
in the south of England. They may not all be ‘disgusted of Tunbridge
Wells’ but the population of Kent generates four times as many
complaints as Northern Ireland. It suggests that the London-based body
is not getting its message across properly.
Nor does the research touch on the key issue: age and leisure. The
complaints forms from which the data is drawn need more (optional) boxes
to provide this information. And what about telephone complaints and e-
mail? After all, being outraged takes time.